HomeMLB RumorsFree Agent Profile: Mike Clevinger

Free Agent Profile: Mike Clevinger

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The market for free agent starters has been fairly busy this offseason, with Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Sonny Gray, and Aaron Nola having come off the board at the top of the market alongside a host of mid-level arms including Kenta Maeda and Seth Lugo. Even the back end of the market has been fairly active, with bounceback arms like Luis Severino and Lance Lynn finding new homes on one-year deals earlier this winter. For all the buzz surrounding the free agent pitching market, however, one name stands out as having not come up in the rumor mill at all to this point in the winter: veteran right-hander Mike Clevinger.

It’s something of a surprise that Clevinger’s market has involved such little fanfare, as the righty was one of the most dominant young arms in the league with Cleveland in the late 2010’s. From 2017 to 2019, Clevinger dominated across 447 2/3 innings of work with a 2.96 ERA that was a whopping 52% better than league average by measure of ERA+. The righty struck out 28.3% of batters faced against a 9.1% walk rate, good for a FIP of 3.32. Among pitchers with at least 400 innings of work across those three seasons, Clevinger’s ERA ranked sixth in the majors behind a quintet of multi-time Cy Young award winners: Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Corey Kluber.

Dominant as Clevinger was, the right-hander was shipped from Cleveland to San Diego at the 2020 trade deadline and wound up requiring Tommy John surgery just four starts into his tenure with the Padres. Rehab wiped out his entire 2021 season, and the right-hander returned in 2022 to post the worst season of his career. In 117 1/3 innings of work, Clevinger struggled to a 4.33 ERA with a 4.98 FIP, the first time he posted a ERA+ below the league average since becoming a full-time starter in 2017.

Clevinger’s peripherals also suffered considerably. Though the right-hander entered the 2022 campaign with a strong 27.3% career strikeout rate, he punched out just 18.8% of batters faced in his first year back from surgery. His batted ball metrics suffered as well: while he had generated grounders at a 40.3% clip during his peak years in Cleveland, that figure fell to just 35.2% with the Padres in 2022. The difficult season led Clevinger to sign a one-year, $12MM deal with the White Sox last offseason, and the righty made good on that deal by turning in a solid performance last year.

Clevinger’s time on the south side of Chicago got off to a rough start as he struggled to a 4.84 ERA across his first seven starts, but the right-hander settled in from there to bring his ERA down to just 3.88 by the time a wrist injury sent him to the injured list in mid-June. That success carried over when Clevinger returned to action six weeks later, and he entered the month of September with a sterling 2.45 ERA and solid 3.88 FIP in his last eleven starts. Clevinger mostly cruised through the month of September until his final appearance of the year, where he was torched for six runs in just 1 2/3 innings of work to leave him with a 3.77 ERA and 4.28 FIP on the season.

While Clevinger flashed his previous, dominant form at various points throughout the 2023 season and saw his average fastball velocity tick back up to 94.6, higher than his career average, it seems unlikely the veteran righty would be able to fully rediscover his previous form over a full season. After all, Clevinger’s groundball rate was at a career-worst 30.9% last season and while his strikeout rate did improve over 2022 it still sat at just 20%. That’s a far cry from the 33.9% clip Clevinger punched out batters at back in 2019 and pretty significantly below league average this past year.

Even so, the right-hander figures to be a quality, innings eating veteran who a club can comfortably place in the middle-to-back of their rotation in 2024. While Clevinger’s strikeout and groundball rates left something to be desired last year, he flashed strong command with a walk rate of just 7.3% while maintaining hard-hit and barrel rates significantly better than league average. Combined with his rediscovered velocity, it’s easy to see how the veteran right-hander could be an above average big league starter next season. If he can live up to that billing, the right-hander might prove to be a steal for the club that ultimately signs him this winter.

MLBTR projected Clevinger for a two-year, $26MM deal on our annual Top 50 MLB free agents list, where he placed 30th. That $13MM AAV would be something of a steal for a solid, mid-rotation arm this offseason given the pricey one-year deals arms like Frankie Montas ($16MM), and Jack Flaherty ($14MM) signed on the heels of seasons marred by injury and under performance. Meanwhile, the likes of Lucas Giolito ($19.3MM AAV) and Michael Wacha ($16MM AAV) managed to surpass those marks on multi-year guarantees. While Giolito is three-and-a-half years younger than Clevinger and Wacha has a stronger recent track record, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where Clevinger posts comparable numbers to either pitcher in 2024 at a lower price point.

The veteran righty has been something of a ghost on the rumor mill this offseason, with few if any clubs directly connected to the right-hander. With that being said, plenty of teams are known to be in the market for starting pitching this winter including the Red Sox, Orioles, Angels, Giants, Yankees, and Cubs. Any of those teams could benefit from adding Clevinger to their rotation mix, and he could prove to be an attractive backup option for teams that either can’t afford or fall short in the bidding for top-of-the-market arms like Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery, or who are unwilling to meet the asking prices for potential trade candidates like Dylan Cease and Shane Bieber.

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